Canadians support national passenger rail system

Canadian government may sell The Canadian.
There is a deep base of support for Canada's national passenger rail system. The rationale for passenger rail is powerful. But passenger rail in Canada is under threat.

On Apr. 23 the Globe and Mail reported: "Transport Canada is circulating four options, including privatizing VIA’s Toronto-Vancouver Canadian line, privatizing its Jasper-Vancouver service, reducing VIA’s service to “low-mid level” by selling off its deluxe cars and luxury offerings or having VIA recoup a greater share of its costs for the Jasper-Vancouver line."

Updated: Aug. 2012: Brown envelope copy of briefing note for Minister's Dec. 1, 2012 meeting with The Rocky Mountaineer. 

A top government source subsequently told Transport Action there is support for Via Rail within the ruling Conservative party. The source asks why the government would put $1 billion into something only to scrap it. Officially the government has no plan to sell Via Rail.

Transport Action Canada supports the national passenger rail system. The organization is exploring funding a Blue Sky Vision for Via Rail. 

It is calling on Canadians to let MPs know we support Via Rail. 

In the wake of the the Globe and Mail report Transport Action activists offered up the following comments. 

An "emotional" commitment to VIA trains

Harry Gow wrote, "Every public opinion poll I have seen on passenger trains shows Canada supports them.

I am one of those who has an "emotional" commitment to VIA trains. I ride them once a week for one thing or another;  I also ride commuter trains, buses, m├ętros and rural public transit. I founded Transport 2000 Canada to defend these things. I shall continue to work for them.

Via Rail is basic transportation for many

Transport Action Ontario's Tony Turritin wrote, "VIA is rather basic transportation for many.  We've recently had supper with a couple that came to Toronto from Vancouver by the Canadian. The husband can't fly, and they don't want to drive.  Shouldn't they have a choice?  One reason VIA doesn't come off well is that its western trains were cut to one train three days a week. Before that there were two daily trains in a network and patronage was good. Transport Action has the supporting data.

The Rocky Mountaineer is not a struggling tourist service.  It's prices are hugely and outrageously high.  And they have locked out their workers who went on strike mainly for better working conditions (pay for actual time on the train not just for the time it is scheduled for).  RM wants a monopoly with NO competition.  And it will not offer any point-to-point transportation other than its package offerings.  In other words it will not offer any trains that the public can use.  They only run a few times a month in the summer.

Transcontinental trains provide intercity service 

Transport Action BC's John Bakker wrote, "Trips on long distance trans-continental trains are seldom end to end, but more often between locations along the route. The Transcontinental also serves many different markets. So the so-called short and medium markets are supplemented with overnight markets. That is why the Empire Builder of Amtrak is successful, not because everybody travels from Chicago to Seattle or Portland."

Via needs to expand services

Transport Action Atlantic's Harold Nicholson wrote:  The Canadian (VIA #1 #2) are really great "Cruise trains" with only a little effort to serve Canadians as basic transport! I would rather have VIA serve Canada with the following:
1) Toronto - Winnipeg: overnight train
2) Winnipeg - Calgary and Winnipeg - Edmonton - possibly a day train and an overnight train
3) Other - as identified - day trains
ALL at least 6 times per week! I suspect it could be done with baggage, coaches and perhaps 16 to 20 sleepers and 4 or 5 dining cars, skyline and observation cars

Cost recovery on The Canadian is high

If we want investment in and service on the Quebec-Windsor Corridor, we need to support the long-haul and regional routes. Those trains are no less important to the people they serve than the trains in the corridor are to southern Ontarians and Quebeckers who use them. VIA is taking steps to restore it to its former level of about 70% with the luxury upgrades, although I personally believe it needs more serious surgery.  On a worldwide basis, there is nothing out of line with VIA's cost recovery on the admittedly inadequate long-haul network.  The remote trains are another matter and something should be done to improve them for greater cost recovery and service value.  They should also be excluded from any evaluation of VIA's efficiency because they are social services that can never hope to recover more than a small percentage of their full costs, even with cost-effective service realignments.

Passenger rail infrastructure rationed 

Transport Action Canada's vice president Justin Bur wrote: The point is that the western transcontinental isn't currently *just* for wealthy sightseeing tourists – but that it is financially viable for VIA only if it carries some wealthy tourists. It's the same model as most flights, which are viable only if they carry a certain number of business travellers willing to pay a higher fare. The clever scheme of Rocky Mountaineer is to eliminate the coach-class service to low-paying Canadians along the route, and raise the luxury fare even higher, so they can turn the route into a profit centre.

Rocky Mountaineer, having muscled in on VIA Rail by taking over the southern transcontinental back in 1990, having twisted the rubber arm of the BC government (or just stepped in when the occasion arose, I'm not sure which) to "upgrade" the passenger services of BC Rail in 2002, now wants to do the same thing to the remaining train through the Rockies. It's blatant cronyism, and an attempt to skim the cream off the top of a public service. Moreover, the argument about the poor private sector having trouble competing with big bad publicly subsidized VIA rings false, when you consider that they lobbied so hard to wrench the service away from VIA/BC Rail, and then end up offering less for a much higher price.

In the end, though, this is a tawdry diversion from the fundamental problem of passenger rail *infrastructure* being so rationed and in miserable shape that very little in the way of commercially viable service can be contemplated. Thus do VIA and the bottom-feeders rip each other to shreds over the meagre crumbs of their subsistence, and the potential passengers, their needs unmet, instead drive their cars on the public highways so munificently funded.

People stranded and dependent 

Transport Action Ontario's Elizabeth Hill wrote: "We must not forget that bus transportation routes may have vanished or are being discontinued and that leaves people literally stranded - and dependant on family members with vehicles (or their own personal vehicles) to get from point A to Point B. And...we have an aging population.

Also, perhaps VIA's marketing cannot compete with the excellent marketing of Peter Armstrong and the Rocky Mountaineer - with it's stops in hotels so that passengers get to see all of the route in daylight. Armstrong's marketing pieces "push every button". Sure looks appealing on a personal level to me. VIA promotional materials seem to make basic assumptions about trains that need to be said out loud.  In short , VIA needs to blow it's own horn very, very loudly, and put up a heck of a fight to save it's existence!

All modes of transport in this country are subsidized

Transport Action Ontario's Gordon Woodmansey wrote:  All modes of transport in this country are subsidized.  It is only a matter of degree.  If we turned off the subsidy tap I'm sure all the planes would be grounded, the highways empty, the ports quiet.The question is how much of a subsidy should we be giving each mode and why.

I would be quite interested in seeing what the subsidy is for the average passenger going from Toronto to Vancouver by rail, road and air.  I'm sure rail would be highest, but one might find that it isn't outrageously so.  I would also be interested to see how the subsidies are calculated.  I'm sure there is some book cooking going on to make certain routes and modes look bad.  These questions need to be answered before any talk of cuts are made.  Unlike the Federal Government, I do not like to make decisions in a factual vacuum.

As for Rocky Mountaineer's proposed I am wholly unimpressed.  Charging $100s for their services, constant labour battles, no thanks.  The closing of VIA's western services to create a monopoly to increase one company's profits is scandalous. If anything, the rail mode should be enhanced in the environmentally sensitive western part of this country.

Fewer choices for the mobility challenged

Mellissa Northe, Inclusion  Coordinator for Transport Action Canada wrote: If VIA is privatized then Canadian travellers who are mobility challenged will have fewer choices.

The basic service provided by VIA is beautiful with easy access to a point at stations as well as networking that can take place. I particularly do not like to fly as the staff is not well-versed on mobility needs. VIA staff do have some knowledge of those whom require access.

If VIA is privatized, Canadian will lose a passenger rail system will and part of our national heritage and culture. Canadians will have little choice but to travel across this vast and beautiful but fly above and be denied all that view.

We have a strong citizenship that feel that train travel over the country is viable. This government should start listening to others instead of helping a corporate entity monopolize, at expense of everyday citizens, affordable and accessible transportation.

Globe and Mail, Rocky Mountaineer's political heft 

"On Apr. 23 the Globe and Mail reported : "The documents point out that the Rocky Mountaineer service was actually created and run at a profit by VIA for two years starting in 1988 before it was privatized in 1990 under a deal that allowed VIA to continue operating on the same line. Lobbying records show Rocky Mountaineer Vacations has held numerous meetings with Conservative ministers, MPs and political staff in recent years. The board of directors for Rocky Mountaineer has Tory connections. Its members include former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning and previously included former Conservative MP Jim Gouk, who served as the opposition critic for VIA Rail from 2001 to 2006.

Rocky Mountaineer lock-out, Teamsters union urges boycott

"The new season will begin next week with a familiar labour dispute between the company and its on-board attendants unresolved. Rod Blackburn, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 31, said the union has recently targeted training sessions of replacement workers undertaken at Vancouver hotels. It is also pushing for Canadian Labour Congress to declare a national boycott on Rocky Mountaineer," Cam Fortems wrote for the Kamloops Daily News on Apr. 17.

"Corporate spokesman Ian Robertson said the locked-out workers are having no effect on business. … “We’re able to hire replacement workers and we did that last year,” Robertson said. “It’s our plan for this year” the Kamloops Daily News reported.